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Elisha and the She Bears- 2 Kings 2:23-25

A few years ago I was at an SU camp and had been asked to be part of a panel to be asked questions by the campers. We had been gone through the story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal during the week and so one of the kids asked why Elijah had ordered the prophets be killed after the episode involving the burnt sacrifice. Its a pretty brutal scene, after Elijah wins this contest he has the people seize the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and slaughter them. I tried my best to answer the question saying that the prophets of Baal were a truly evil lot, who often sacrificed children in their ceremonies and had generally lead Israel astray over the years Elijah had been prophesying. Furthermore, there is no suggestion of repentance from the prophets in this chapter and it is made clear in the bible that at a certain point down the road of rebellion and unrighteousness God will put an end to it in judgement.

Now after I had answered that question I got another question, but what about the youths who were killed by the she bears because they called Elisha a baldy? Surely they didn't deserve to be mauled to death? Again I did my best to answer the question, but my answer largely revolved around ignorance, saying things like we don't know the circumstances, the passage doesn't tell us about these boys, were they thugs who were threatening Elisha or were they simply innocent but slightly cheeky kids? I argued there must have been a reason why God sent the she bears and we have to trust that He did what was best, however, one of the other leaders on the panel argued a very differently, she suggested Elisha was wrong to curse the boys however, God honoured his curse because he was God's prophet and later on Elisha grew to regret such a rash action.

Regardless of what I think about that answer, it is obvious Christians can come at this passage from two rather different angles. Today I am going to present to you both these arguments in a little more detail and then we shall discuss which of the two is more faithful to the biblical text and the bible as a whole. But firstly let me set the scene for you.

So far in Chapter two, Elijah and Elisha had travelled from Bethel to Jericho and then two the river Jordan, here Elijah had dipped his cloak in the water and it had parted rather like the red sea allowing him and Elisha to pass over, then a chariot and horseman of fire had flown down from the heavens, swooped Elijah up and left Elisha crying “My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen.” Then having torn his own clothes Elisha picks up Elijah's cloak which had fallen from his back and puts it on, returning back across the Jordan and entering the city of Jericho. There the people of Jericho seemed to treat him well but doubt his story regarding Elijahs disappearance as they sent men to look for his body. Having not found it as Elisha told them they wouldn't, they then seem to ask Elisha to prove that he has now been chosen to succeed Elijah by asking him to miraculously purify the city water. Which he does. And so he leaves the city of Jericho retracing the route he and Elijah had taken back to Bethel. Now Bethel was not a place where you were likely to find good God fearing men, rather, at this time it had become the centre in Israel for apostasy, idol worship and false prophets (see 1 Kings 12:25 onwards).

So now that I have set the scene, let me take my fellow leaders argument that Elisha was wrong to curse the boys and he did so in grumpy irritation. This argument I found represented in this commentary by Ronald S Wallace. The first thing he points out is Elisha had just been to Jericho where God had affirmed his status as His prophet with the accompaniment of a miraculous sign, the purification of the water, and now Elisha being rather cuffed with himself was in need of being brought down to reality in regard to his own imperfection and the hard nature of life as a prophet of God. Therefore, this event in Bethel is not necessarily supposed to be considered a success but rather a failure. Furthermore, Wallace points out the translation of youths here can also be understood as grown responsible youths, therefore, not simply childish young boys, which he believes may help to soften our shock at the outcome.

Wallace conclusion is that God did not necessarily will for these boys to be killed, He was simply supporting his prophet Elisha, who got a little over zealous and emotional, against these disrespectful youths from the sinful city of Bethel.

Now in comparison, let us take Dale Ralph Davis book and contrast his argument, that this passage is a result of God's judgement. Firstly, Davis considers the translation of youths in this passage to mean the boys were between ten and twelve years old, he therefore agrees with Wallace that these are not 5 year old boys that have escaped from nursery and don't know what they are saying. Furthermore, he suggests the taunts of the boys are symptomatic of their parents regard for YHWH and His prophets as Bethel had been the centre of Jeroboams Bull worship. And the action of these boys had been calculated, it says in verse 23 “and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered him”, therefore Elisha had not just been passing through town but rather these boys intentionally went to meet him. It wasn't just a couple either, the crowd must have been over 50 as 45 were mauled of them v24. Therefore, the scene might be conceived of more like this, a gang of rowdy lads intentionally confronted Elisha, a man of YHWH of whom they had no regard but rather mocked with potentially malicious intent.

Secondly, Davis suggests if we look at the taunt itself, “Go up, baldy” there are suggestions as to what the youths were really saying. The word “Go up” alah is the same word in v11 where Elijah is taken up by the flaming chariot and horsemen. If we consider that the men of Jericho who respected Elisha did not really believe his story about Elijah disappearance, it is very possible that youths of Bethel where the prophets were mocked would laugh at such a tale. And so the youths were saying, “why don't you do a disappearing act like Elijah! Ya Baldy!” so therefore, not only were the youths mocking Elisha, YHWH's prophet but they were mocking YHWH Himself, laughing at a story of His miraculous power.

Thirdly, the bears here can be considered covenant bears. Bear with me on this....if we look at Leviticus 26:21-22

"If you remain hostile toward me and refuse to listen to me, I will multiply your afflictions seven times over, as your sins deserve. I will send wild animals against you, and they will rob you of your children, destroy your cattle and make you so few in number that your roads will be deserted."

Davis says , “covenant infidelity had brought the covenant curse. Had Elisha been wrong to curse one would assume YHWH would of not fulfilled the curse. That YHWH did so vindicates Elisha's curse. Here is not an irritable prophet but a judging God.”.

So I have presented to you two sides of the argument, I think there conclusions contradict each other well enough to force us to choose which one is more true to the text and the bible as a whole. On the one hand, we have a faulty prophet whom God decides to honour over a bunch of loud mouth disrespectful youths, on the other hand we have a wrathful God who chooses to fulfil the covenant curse on a group of blasphemous, rebellious and unrepentant sinners.